"What’s that?" a preschooler asked in the YWCA locker room, pointing at the crotch of a naked little girl standing nearby.
"That's her vagina," her mother answered with that false brightness adults reserve for addressing the very young and the very old.
I cleared my throat to speak but then bit my tongue. I wanted to lean over to that mother and say, "Hey, I think I know something that you don't know." Or, maybe, "Vagina! You must be kidding! Do you have X-ray vision, lady." But who am I to correct other people's language?
In truth, I've been correcting people's language for decades.
My first serious attempt to raise vulva consciousness was directed toward my professional colleagues. After joining the staff of the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, I published a paper called "Parental Mislabeling of Female Genitals as a Determinant of Penis Envy and Learning Inhibitions in Women." A case example illustrated how the failure to accurately label the girl's external genitalia contributes to shame and confusion about sexuality, as well as to inhibitions about looking and learning.
My article appeared in 1974 in a prestigious psychoanalytic journal and was met with a dignified fraternal silence.
Undaunted, I have continued to publish on the subject of how the failure to solve the watchimacall problem obfuscates female reality and is bad for female development. In my book, The Dance of Fear, I spell out the harm done to girls and women, especially when a sexual violation or abuse has taken place.
I had reason to believe I was making progress, until I saw "The Vagina Monologues" in New York City where it first opened. Here was a play whose purpose was purportedly to restore pride in female genitals—including pride in naming—and it could not have been more confusing about genital reality. Shaving a vagina? Really? Much of the play didn’t make sense unless you substituted the word vulva for vagina.
Amazingly, women and men watched this play and pretended, even to themselves, that nothing was amiss. Of course, some folks did notice. In an online article a woman named Shelley True said she wanted to stand up on her chair and announce, “Listen to me, it’s vulva, not vagina. You’re talking about vulvas!”
In the lobby she purchased “chocolate vaginas” and brought them home to her husband. Without prompting, he immediately identified the candy as a vulva. “A dark day for female twat scholarship,” True wrote. “He doesn’t even have one.”
As my friend and colleague Emily Kofron points out, men wouldn't be pathetically grateful for a liberation movement that confused a penis with testicles.
Of course, we can be thankful for the fact that Americans don’t excise the clitoris and ablate the labia, as is practiced in other cultures. Instead, we do the job linguistically—a psychological genital mutilation, if you will. Obviously the two are not equivalent, but language can be as powerful and swift as the surgeon's knife.
Parents still tell me that they have never heard the word vulva, including a large number who think the term refers to a Swedish automobile. And parents who are knowledgeable about the correct words give the most imaginative reasons for not using them:
"Telling my daughter about her vulva and clitoris is like telling her to go masturbate."
"Vulva and clitoris are technical terms." (This one from parents who taught their small daughter about ovaries and fallopian tubes.)
The vagina is for reproduction and that’s all she should know.
Years back I founded the V-Club with a small group of New York feminist scholars. As president of the club, I want to invite all of you to become members. The criterion for membership is to use the words vulva and vagina correctly and to encourage others do the same.
Sorry, there are no membership cards, T-shirts or buttons. But, if you meet the criterion for membership, you'll have more holes punched in your Feminist Heaven Card.
You'll be giving more power to women—which is also a great gift to men.